Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Sheila Kohler's novel Becoming Jane Eyre. The book was an unexpected gift from a close friend, who had recently seen Kohler read and who said to me, "She isn't an idiot." This is fairly high praise from this particular friend, who is also writer, and a self-demanding one. He has not himself read Kohler's book, nor has he read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre recently. (It's possible that he's never read Jane Eyre; he's not a nineteenth-century-British-literature kind of guy.) But he knows all about my reading habits, and thus Kohler's novel arrived in my mailbox.

I have strong opinions about Charlotte Bronte's personality; and if you happen to have read "Inventing Charlotte Bronte," my essay about her in the current Sewanee Review, you'll know that I find her to be cruel, arrogant, self-dramatizing, passionate, brave, and heartbreaking. In other words, her authorial persona attracts me as much as her work itself does; and this seems to be true for Kohler as well. Probably it's true for many readers. As I write in my essay, "the Bronte sisters had brief and often dreadful lives" punctuated by emotional and physical deprivation; their brother's descent into addiction and mental illness; the deaths, one after another, of nearly everyone they loved. The terrible drama of their life stories is as compelling as the terrible drama of their invented stories.

Essentially Kohler does in her novel what I do in my essay: she wanders along the permeable boundaries of biographical fact, fictional character, and authorial persona. Naturally this similarity of intent interests me; and naturally, I suppose, it annoys me--not because I object to our parallel travels (in fact, that's what I like best) but because our invented authorial personae grate on each other. Each of us hears the Charlotte voice differently, and Kohler's Charlotte is a whole lot sweeter than mine.

I'm extremely fond of my shrill, rude, and peremptory Charlotte voice; and it disturbs me to meet this persona cloaked in Kohler's docile prose, which is nothing at all like Bronte's abrasive style. Of course I don't write like CB either, so I really don't have a leg to stand on here. But something about Kohler's self-deprecating diction bothers me. I suppose what this disconnect highlights is how personal an author-reader relationship can be. I feel offended because someone else hears an author's voice differently from how I hear it. That's an entirely illogical reaction, but logic isn't the point.

If you read the comments on yesterday's post, you'll see that something similar has happened with Shakespeare's sonnets. Readers get angry because someone else dares to interact "in the wrong way" with a work they care about. This isn't a scholarly dispute; it's far more personal--more like getting defensive because someone doesn't appreciate your husband's finer points. Our relationship with our reading is complex. Teresa comments on my October 20 post that Moby-Dick is one of her "'desert island' books whereas, although I'm very much enjoying [Great Expectations], I'm not sure I'd feel the same way about it after multiple readings." Immediately I get all bristly: I love Great Expectations; I've read it a million times; every time I pick up Moby-Dick I wish I were doing something else. . . . And now maybe Teresa's going to get all hepped up because I don't love MD as much as I should. Readerly passion is, in many ways, ridiculous. Maybe that's why scholarship was invented.


charlotte gordon said...

I feel the same way about Moby dick. And I am on your side when it comes to Charlotte (s)

Ruth said...

Reader loyalty is a powerful thing. I tell, no encourage my
5th graders to tell me why they DON"T like a book or to abandon a book that they've begun for independent reading Fair is fair I do it all the time